Murder at Shandy Hall: The Coachford poisoning case
MICHAEL Sheridan has previously written about the unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Schull in 1996 and the murdered journalist Veronica Guerin. Murder at Shandy Hall concerns another female murder victim, but this time the crime takes place in 1887 in rural Cork.
The murder of Mary Laura Cross, aged 46, by her husband, a retired army surgeon aged 63, of Shandy Hall, Dripsey, led to a sensational court case. The surgeon major was found guilty of using arsenic to poison his wife and was sentenced to death by hanging, which was carried out at Cork County Gaol.
As in all murders, the facts of the case as revealed in court are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lies the motive, in this case marriage to an attractive 21-year-old woman, Effie Skinner, who had been the family’s governess and was pregnant with Dr Cross’s child. Mrs Cross died on June 1 and even though she was buried in haste, and different explanations for her death were given to different people, suspicions were not aroused until Dr Cross returned from a trip to England on June 26 with a new wife — the former governess, Effie Skinner.
Philip Cross’s ancestors came to Cork in 1599, and acquired land around Carrigrohane and Blarney. The Cross family had owned Shandy Hall, a gentleman’s residence (today a substantial and well-maintained two-storey Georgian house, to judge from the contemporary photograph) and 500 acres in the parish of Magourney, which includes Coachford and Dripsey, since 1771.
Philip had a reputation as a bit of a wild card until he was sent to the Royal College of Surgeons to study medicine. After qualifying in 1848 he joined the British army as a surgeon, and fought in the Crimean War. His career was mainly spent abroad, in the days before basic hygiene and anaesthesia were introduced, and Sheridan makes it clear Dr Cross was used to watching patients suffer.
On August 17, 1869, Cross married Mary Laura Marriott in London. He was 46, a dashing, six-foot tall army officer, while she, at 29, was in danger of being left on the shelf. Because her family settled no money on her, it seems they disapproved of the match. She later inherited £5,000, a substantial sum. She was of delicate health, subject to fainting fits, probably suffering from epilepsy, from which two of the couple’s four children also suffered. In 1875, Cross retired from the army and the family moved to Shandy Hall.
Mary Laura made friends locally, in particular with a Mrs Caulfield of Classas, who had a family of similar age. Cross was banned from hunting with the Hussars in Ballincollig, perhaps as a result of an incident in which he severed a farmer’s ear with his whip when the farmer objected to Cross hunting over his land.
Mrs Caulfield first engaged Effie Skinner, the pretty, 21-year-old governess, a respectable young woman from a distinguished Scottish clerical family. Her arrival in June, 1886 coincided with Mary Laura’s decision to go to England for an extended visit, hoping to raise her low spirits. Dr Cross became a frequent visitor to the Caulfields, and he and Effie apparently fell in love in spite of the age gap. By October, Effie had given her notice to Mrs Caulfield and moved to the Cross household.
However, Mrs Cross on her return was obviously not happy with this arrangement, as she sacked Effie Skinner in January, 1887. However, she gave her a reference which enabled her to find a new job, by which Sheridan concludes that Mrs Cross blamed her husband for the affair. Dr Cross continued to meet Effie clandestinely, and by June 4, 1887, Mrs Cross was dead and buried.
The local RIC District Inspector, Henry Tyacke of Ballincollig, was alerted to the suspicious circumstances of Mrs Cross’s death, probably by Mrs Caulfield. Tyacke’s investigation convinced him an inquest should be held and he consulted with the Crown medical analyst, Dr Charles Yelverton Pearson, a professor in Queen’s College, Cork (today’s UCC).
Sheridan gives full technical descriptions of the post mortem, followed by a fascinating history of death by poisoning. He describes without flinching the normal process of putrefaction and compares this with the state of Mary Laura Cross’s body, which was exhumed on July 21, having been buried beside Magourney Church on June 4. The unusual state of preservation of her internal organs raised suspicions of arsenic poisoning, which were confirmed by toxicology reports. The Cork Examiner attended the inquest, and is praised for its “restrained and undramatic manner of reporting”. Tyacke’s next move was to arrest Cross and take him into custody.
The details that emerge during the trial are harrowing. Laura Mary Cross suffered over two weeks of almost constant vomiting and purging, to the extent that both stomach and bowels were empty at the time of her death. Her husband had been her sole medical attendant, apart from a short visit by an elderly relative, also a doctor.
The court case is reported in detail over about 200 pages, followed by the execution, on January 10, 1888. Cross never confessed to his crime and faced his death bravely. The executioner James Berry singled the surgeon major out in his memoirs as the only victim who “walked firmly to the scaffold”. The cover of Murder at Shandy Hall closely resembles that of Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House. Sheridan acknowledges her work, also based on a true-life murder mystery, as having given him “great inspiration and encouragement”.
Sheridan’s work is not as fast-paced and tightly focused, with the narrative often interrupted by lengthy quotes from original sources, the significance of which is not always clear. However, it is interesting on the history of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the development of the science of forensic toxicology. When Sheridan gives his imagination full rein, as in his speculative recreation of Laura Cross’s murder in the final chapter, the result is truly spine-chilling.
But even after 381 pages, unsolved mysteries linger. Why did Mary Laura not suspect her husband, her sole physician, when she became dangerously ill so soon after his affair with the governess? What did the governess see in Dr Cross, a bad-tempered, often brutal man, 41 years her senior? And if he did poison his wife, why did he use such an easily traceable poison as arsenic, and draw attention to his crime by marrying Effie and bring her home so soon after his wife’s death?
It looks very much like a case for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ingenious detective, Sherlock Holmes. Oddly enough, Sheridan tells us, Holmes first appeared in a story published in 1887, the same year as the murder at Shandy Hall.
Picture: The grave of Laura Cross in Magourney Graveyard, Coachford, Co Cork.
Michael Sheridan will visit Waterstone’s Cork bookstore, Patrick Street, on Friday, October 15, at 6.30pm to deliver a talk on his book, The Murder at Shandy Hall. This will be a free ticketed event but booking is advised. See instore for details or call 021-4276522 for information.